La Serena: Buy Two Get None Free

Pisco Elqui

There have been a number of moments this week where I perhaps could have sat down to update the blog, but in all honesty, working at a hostel really wipes you out. Well perhaps it’s not the working, but the fact that, when you’re at a hostel as a guest, your usual daily activities alternate between socialising, going out and perhaps spending a couple of hours alone. Add work into that schedule, and you have to choose one of those three original activities to replace with changing pillowcases and mopping hair off the women’s shower floors (literally what the Christ are you doing in there? Scalping each other?). And let’s be honest, no sane person would fly halfway round the goddamn world to toggle between serving breakfasts to hairy Swedish crossdressers and spending time alone. Yes I do have someone specific in mind.

So you have to sacrifice a little down-time. This is the only place on my entire trip where I’m working during my stay, and I leave tomorrow; from now on the blog posts will be more frequent.

So I’ve been in Chile for about 10 days now, and of course I’m going to start this chapter of my blog with a bang – we had an earthquake here last night. I frantically texted pretty much anyone I have ever known in my life shortly afterwards, so I doubt anyone reading this will be unaware of this fact that I’m so desperate to tell people about, but yes; a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the Coquimbo region at about 9:30 last night, about 45 miles south of us. After for some reason having consumed a two-litre bottle of Coke Zero in the previous 15 minutes, I was flying around the hostel with a broom like a retarded child in a Haribo factory, sweeping up whatever residue the endless flip-flop-clad stream of travelers had left in their wake, when suddenly I felt these weird pulsing vibrations from what I thought were people walking downstairs. I looked up, ready to tell the herd of elephants coming downstairs to tread a little more lightly, only to see an empty staircase, and the American man sat down the hallway from me suddenly bolting out of his chair shouting ‘It’s an earthquake!’. Me, him and another American woman were the only people on the ground floor, and within two seconds they were wedged in the doorframe of their room. I assume they must have been Californian with experienced action-taking like that. As the vibrations got stronger, I stumbled around the hallway, not really knowing what to do.

For those who have never felt a mild earthquake, it’s really not as dramatic as you’d think. Sure, magnitudes 8 and up are probably pretty wild, but this little 6.3-er kind of felt like I had been in the middle of dancing and then suddenly gotten really drunk for a few seconds. The floor feels kind of hollow and flexible, like trying to stand totally still on a trampoline, while a low rumble echoes through everything in the vicinity. That’s the one thing that makes a mild earthquake a little bit more intimidating than its destructive capabilities suggest it should. It was just a bit of vibration and maybe a potted plant or two shuffling across a table, but the sound is extraordinary. Say you hit a banister or stamp on a hollow floor – the vibration will dissipate shortly due to it being ‘grounded’ or connected to a non-resonant object that will absorb the movement. If everything is shaking, including the ground itself, no shock can be absorbed, so the natural sound of everything vibrating happens at once. The walls, the tables, the beds, even the entire building lets out this flat rumbling growl.

Seeing as I have never come close to an earthquake in my life, and had forgotten the frequency with which they happen in Chile, I got caught in about 20 different minds. I ran towards my room, then decided it was too far, so ran back under an arch in the hallway. Realising this wasn’t as structurally sound as I had hoped, I gave up and got down on one knee and put my hands on the floor. Then I remembered the doorway trick, and I sprinted across the hallway to the bathroom door. By this point, however, the earthquake had already been over for a good ten seconds, and I looked up to see my fellow hostel workers staring down at me from the second floor, laughing at the evident panic on my face as my fingers dug into the doorframe. They started going about their business again, so I played it cool, and emerged from my hiding place, only to see the American dude still clinging to his doorway in the next room, his eyes darting around like a tinfoil hat-wearer who had just spotted a UFO. I casually laughed and said ‘Isn’t it over now?’ to which he replied ‘Well THAT one is…’. I lost my composure and darted back to my doorway. In the end, not much happened, though a 5.1 magnitude aftershock happened about 20 minutes later, which I didn’t even notice. If I were to take one lesson away from the experience, it’s that if anyone has ever been killed by an earthquake that registered 6.3 on the Richter scale, they must have been juggling 20 skittles while on a 30ft-high unicycle made of glass.

Best hostel ever

Chile certainly takes the crown for best destination so far. It’s such a strange place – so isolated by the Andes geographically (and to an extent culturally too) – packed full of natural wonders. Huge mountains surround every town, the beaches are long, the waves enormous. It feels much more like Latin America should than Buenos Aires, which is so incredibly colonial that it just feels like a European city. La Serena, the town I have spent the last week in, is an odd one. A seaside town that is actually not on the sea, La Serena is small, dusty, yet incredibly lively. It’s one of the busiest towns I’ve ever visited. Heading out into the centre on a Friday or Saturday was just absolute human gridlock. There are also also an extraordinary 33 churches in this small town, and it seems to be a popular marriage hotspot, so on more than one occasion I found myself wandering into a church only to realise I was now part of a wedding. You can literally just wander in and watch the service.

However, the highlight of not just Chile but of the trip so far (apart from my colleague here attempting to explain a buy-one-get-one-free sale on beer to a customer and accidentally saying ‘Well you buy two, and you get two beers’) was the Elqui Valley. An astonishing feat of tectonic activity, the Elqui Valley is a huge chasm that leads from the coast to the Andes – the entire width of Chile – and is just… desolate. The roads are flanked by enormous dust-and-cacti-covered mountains that stretch way into the sky, while tiny little villages (usually with a church and an empanada stand) are scattered along the route. I took the bus with a friend from the hostel to Pisco Elqui, a small village way into the valley where pisco is made. Pisco is – according to Wikipedia – ‘a colorless or yellowish-to-amber colored brandy produced in winemaking regions of Peru and Chile. Made by distilling grape wine into a high-proof spirit, it was developed by 16th century Spanish settlers as an alternative to orujo, a pomace brandy that was being imported from Spain.’ Yet, despite distilled wine sounding like something only Withnail would drink, it’s actually very sweet and very smooth. I went on a distillery tour of Los Nichos, one of the most famous pisco brands in Chile, and after sitting through the history of the spirit entirely in Spanish, we got what we all wanted – a tasting. Yes.

Trying my hand at hitchhiking in the valley

However, the Elqui Valley has something even more special attached to its name. The main road that winds its way precariously through the mountains of the valley is nicknamed the ‘Ruta de las Estrellas’ – The Route of the Stars – and good Lord did it live up to its name. After stumbling across the most spectacular hostel I’ve ever been to – £10 a night complete with pool, outdoor kitchen, open air rooms and some astonishing scenery – me and a couple of people that had come to the valley from La Serena booked ourselves onto a midnight stargazing tour. Once the sun goes down, stars start to appear pretty quickly. Then more. Then more. Then even more until the whole sky is nothing but stars. And this was when we were sat in the brightly-lit garden of the hostel. Obviously I knew it was going to be special, so we went out and got a two-litre bottle of wine to split between three, necked it and headed out into the desert in a minivan. Almost immediately I realised that this van was surprisingly short of seatbelts, and so hung on to some rusty hooks that were attached to the floor by an elasticated cable. I did not feel safe.

We drove for about 35 minutes, my face a picture of unending terror the entire time, until we got to a small clearing at the base of two mountains. In the middle was a car park and a small observatory dome. I stepped out of the van, already impressed by the starscape, until the final car in the car park switched its headlights off. There is no real way to describe it other than with the two words that subsequently came out of my mouth; holy shit.

From horizon to horizon was the most intensely bright night sky I have ever seen, crammed with stars and planets in literally every direction. Constellations that were usually so easy to spot had become lost in the mess of light. The ambient luminosity was such that you could clearly see the look of awe on the other tourists’ faces. The faded Milky Way was right there, stretching across the entire sky, surrounded by other small gas clouds, nebulas and star clusters, thousands if not millions of light years away. And they were right there, staring you in the face as you stared back. It is of course a cliche to be totally in awe at the scale and majesty of the universe, but that is the first time in my life that I – someone who has stargazed a lot in the past – have been truly blown away by the night sky. When confronted with a naked-eye view like that, comprised of long-dead stars, incomprehensibly massive galaxies and clouds of helium and hydrogen that birth the stars themselves – and deep down knowing that they are distances from us that humankind could never even hope to surmount – I believe that it is truly impossible for an observer not to be moved. On paper it is a vast expanse of nothing, punctuated almost unfathomably infrequently by objects that we will never visit, that has sat idling above our heads every single night for as long as there has been life on this planet – as long as there has been a universe for us to exist in – and yet it is not something that will ever grow old. It will never not be awesome in the truest sense of the word. It is not only the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life, but arguably the most amazing thing that any human being could ever see.


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